It can be very disheartening to contemplate the state of the world, these days. Climate change, growing wealth inequality, civil rights erosion, violence, violence and more violence. As a practitioner of bearing witness, it all gets overwhelming and can lead to despair, unless I find beacons of light. One of the beacons I’ve found is Evo Morales of Bolivia.
If you’re not aware of him, he is the first indigenous president of Bolivia. That would be notable, in and of itself, but he has represented so much more than a demographic token. He’s now a leading voice in a worldwide coalition for a sustainable future. Something he calls “Vivir Bien.”
The concept of vivir bien (live well) defines the current climate change movement in Bolivia. The concept is usually contrasted with the capitalist entreaty to vivir mejor (live better). Proponents argue that living well means having all basic needs met while existing in harmony with the natural world; living better seeks to constantly amass materials goods at the expense of the environment.
This isn’t just a vague “feel good” philosophy. It is a set of principles to live by and guide public policy. Let’s take a look at what those principles are, how they’ve been applied in Bolivia and how they are being adopted beyond Bolivia, along with some of President Morales’ personal background.
Per the Encyclopedia Britannica, Evo Morales was born in 1959, herded llamas as a child, served in the Bolivian military after high school and then worked on a family farm, where one of the crops was coca.
The coca plant is mostly known to those of us outside of the Western South America as the source of cocaine. However, it has very impressive nutritional and medicinal qualities and has been a significant part of the Andean culture. This is important to note because when the US launched it’s “War on Drugs” it didn’t limit it’s enforcement of US laws to activities happening within it’s borders. The US placed enormous pressure on Bolivians to shut down all coca farming. This led to unionization of the farmers. Evo Morales became active in that union. By the mid-1980s he became the executive secretary of a group of unions. This launched his political career that has ended up with him in the presidency. It has also shaped how he sees the impact of capitalist interests around the world.
In the mid-1990s, when the Bolivian government was suppressing coca production with assistance from the United States, Morales helped found a national political party—the leftist Movement Toward Socialism (Spanish: Movimiento al Socialismo; MAS)—at the same time serving as titular leader of the federation representing coca growers.
Morales won a seat in the House of Deputies (the lower house of the Bolivian legislature) in 1997 and was the MAS candidate for president in 2002, only narrowly losing to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. During the presidential campaign, Morales called for the expulsion from Bolivia of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents (his campaign was bolstered by the U.S. ambassador’s comment that aid to Bolivia would be reconsidered if Morales was elected). In the following years, Morales remained active in national affairs, helping force the resignation of Sánchez de Lozada in 2003 and extracting a concession from his successor, Carlos Mesa Gisbert, to consider changes to the highly unpopular U.S.-backed campaign to eradicate illegal coca production.
Two years later, he would run for president again. He was the first Bolivian president since 1982 to win by majority, taking 54% of the votes. Since being elected, he has pushed for policies which reflect the principles of Vivir Bien. In 2009, the principles of Vivir Bien were included in Bolivia’s new constitution. When you read the text of the constitution, you can notice something a bit radically different from that of the US:
This Constitution determines a mixed economy: State, private, cooperative and communal ownership,but restricts private land ownership to a maximum of 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres). (emphasis mine)
That’s a very definitive statement about limiting the accumulation of personal power via controlling land.
So, what are these principles?
There is one way in which the phrase “vivir bien” reminds me of the Brazilian phrase ‘tenho saudade.’ It is hard to translate into English, because it isn’t just about the definition of the words. There is an ineffable cultural feeling, related to a way of perceiving life, embedded in the phrase. As this writer, trying to explain Vivir Bien, puts it:
The richness of the term is difficult to translate into English. It includes the classical ideas of quality of life, but with the specific idea that well-being is only possible within a community. Furthermore, in most approaches the community concept is understood in an expanded sense, to include Nature. Buen Vivir therefore embraces the broad notion of well-being and cohabitation with others and Nature. In this regard, the concept is also plural, as there are many different interpretations depending on cultural, historical and ecological setting.
When Vivir Bien was incorporated into the Bolivian constitution it was enacted as ethical and moral principles for the State:
In the Bolivian case, is presented in Spanish as ‘Vivir Bien’, and is included in the section devoted to the ethical and moral principles describing the values, ends and objectives of the State. The approach is multicultural, and Vivir Bien is referred to the aymara concept of suma qamaña, but also to the guaraní ideas of the harmonious living (ñandereko), good life (teko kavi), the land without evil (ivi maraei) and the path to the noble life (qhapaj ñan). These ideas come from different cultures but all are presented together at the same level, without hierarchies. They are part of a major set of principles linked to other well-known principles, such as unity, equality, dignity, freedom, solidarity, reciprocity, social and gender equity, social justice, responsibility and so on. Furthermore, all the ethical–moral principles, including Vivir Bien, are linked to the economic organization of the State. The Bolivian Constitution introduces an economic plural model (in the sense of diverse cultural origins of economic activities), and its objectives are to increase quality of life and ensure the Vivir Bien.
To see how that translates into policies, read this speech that President Morales gave in June. Bolivia is a member of the Group of 77 plus China. As host of this year’s summit, Morales gave the opening talk. In it, policy ideas based on the principles of Vivir Bien are spelled out. I’m quoting snippets from each section. They will give you a taste of Vivir Bien. Read the entire thing to get a more comprehensive flavor.
First: We must move from sustainable development to comprehensive development [desarrollo integral] so that we can live well and in harmony and balance with Mother Earth.
Second: Sovereignty exercised over natural resources and strategic areas.
Countries that have raw materials should and can take sovereign control over production and processing of those materials.
Third: Well-being for everyone and the provision of basic services as a human right
Fourth: Emancipation from the existing international financial system and construction of a new financial architecture … We also need to define limits to gains from speculation and to excessive accumulation of wealth.
Fifth: Build a major economic, scientific, technological and cultural partnership among the members of the group of 77 plus China … Science must be an asset of humanity as a whole. Science must be placed at the service of everyone’s well-being, without exclusions or hegemonies.
Sixth: Eradicate hunger among the world’s peoples. It is imperative that hunger be eradicated and that the human right to food be fully exercised and enforced.
Seventh: Strengthen the sovereignty of states free from foreign interference, intervention and/or espionage. … For this reason, the UN Security Council must be abolished. Rather than fostering peace among nations, this body has promoted wars and invasions by imperial powers in their quest for the natural resources available in the invaded countries. Instead of a Security Council, today we have an insecurity council of imperial wars.
Eighth: Democratic renewal of our states. The era of empires, colonial hierarchies and financial oligarchies is coming to an end. Everywhere we look, we see peoples around the world calling for their right to play their leading role in history. … We must move away from limited parliamentary and party-based governance and into the social governance of democracy.
Ninth: A new world rising from the south for the whole of humanity. … In the past, we were colonized and enslaved. Our stolen labour built empires in the North. …
However, our liberation is not only the emancipation of the peoples of the South. Our liberation is also for the whole of humanity. We are not fighting to dominate anyone. We are fighting to ensure that no one becomes dominated.
“We are fighting to ensure that no one becomes dominated.” That’s a radical concept in today’s world, where domination is the name of the capitalist game.
Morales gave this speech to a gathering of more than 130 developing countries. (The Group of 77 was established in the 1960s, as a subset of the UN. It has grown to include 133, but they’ve kept the original name.) I highly recommend that you read the entire speech. He is speaking to countries who have bonded over their histories with “developed” nations. They are rising in solidarity to resist colonization, exploitation and financial domination. In doing so, they are emerging with a new vision of what the world can look like and how we can all live in harmony. I found myself feeling a little hope for humanity, as I read it.
That sense of hope comes not because of the speech alone. The speech would be only so many pretty but hollow words, but for the fact that Bolivia is living through this transformation. They have seen their economy strengthen.
This paper examines the Bolivian economy since President Evo Morales took office in 2006. It finds that Bolivia’s economic growth in the last four years has been higher than at any time in the last 30 years, averaging 4.9 percent annually since the current administration took office in 2006. Projected GDP growth for 2009 is the highest in the hemisphere and follows its peak growth rate in 2008.
And that is directly related to their rejection of capitalism:
Key to the Bolivian economy’s relative success has been expansionary fiscal policy and control over national resources, especially the hydrocarbons sector – a relatively recent development.
In the last three years the government has begun several programs targeted at the poorest Bolivians. These include payments to poor families to increase school enrollment; an expansion of public pensions to relive extreme poverty among the elderly; and most recently, payments for uninsured mothers to expand prenatal and post-natal care, to reduce infant and child mortality.
It hasn’t been without it’s hardships or opposition. Some of Bolivia’s regions have more individually held wealth than others. In a bid to redistribute wealth, those who have to give up relative power are always going to resist. There was an attempt to foment disapproval of Morales, by the wealthy class. They were able to force a national referendum for a no-confidence vote on his presidency. They lost that battle soundly: two-thirds of the population supported him. That’s a high approval rating in any circumstance, but given how much radical change they are undertaking, it’s even more impressive. (We’ve seen a similar trajectory with Venezuela, where the wealthy class have tried to spark widespread violence during any functional democratic protest or election. Yet, Venezuelans continue to choose the difficult path of transition away from capitalism, as they’ve seen their quality of life vastly improve.)
What Bolivia and Ecuador – who embedded their own Buen Vivir into their constitution – and Venezuela are doing is inspiring. More than that, in this age of communication, the signals they are sending out into the world are resonating. All of those who have been dominated have the means to reach out to each other and build solidarity, share ideas, support one another and build something new inside existing global socio-economic structures. As they do so, they will help hollow out the pillars of capitalism. More and more people will see the lack of values in capitalism and witness the quality of life improvement for those who eschew it. When capitalism finally collapses, Vivir Bien may be there to cushion the blow and guide us into a more sustainable and harmonious future.
If you’re looking for a likely alternative future for human social organizing, keep your eyes on the Global South, particularly South America. You might notice, more and more, that cutting edge statements and perspectives are emanating from there. In Uruguay, they elected the “world’s poorest president.” He was one of the most successful guerrilla leaders during the 60s and 70s, he donates 90% of his salary to charity and maintains a very humble lifestyle farming chrysanthemums. He simply doesn’t have the same worldview as leaders of industrialized nations.
In September 2013, Mujica addressed the United Nations General Assembly, with a very long discourse devoted to humanity and globalization.
Like Morales in Bolivia, he remains popular. South Americans have known the oppression of colonialism and they seem to be relishing their time of having their voice of resistance on the global stage. They are accepting the messiness of transition because that’s still better than economic slavery. Just as we can’t turn to the privileged classes here for radical change in our culture, we can’t turn to the “industrialized nations” for a radical change in the course of human sustainability. Those who benefit from things as they are, aren’t going to design a system which demands that they give up their privileges. So, as we try to bolster ourselves against the despair that the latest news cycle and ongoing US political discourse evokes in us, I recommend we look south. Watch what they’re doing. Signal solidarity with that which resonates and hope. Hope they lead us to some breakthroughs. For, as Morales says:
Only we can save the source of life and society: Mother Earth. Our planet is under a death threat from the greed of predatory and insane capitalism.
Today, another world is not only possible, it is indispensable.
Today, another world is indispensable because, otherwise, no world will be possible.
And that other world of equality, complementarity and organic coexistence with Mother Earth can only emerge from the thousands of languages, colours and cultures existing in brotherhood and sisterhood among the Peoples of the South.
He’s not out there preaching austerity to the masses. He’s not telling us that if we would stop being lazy moochers and become better capitalists, everything would be better. He’s not encouraging us to raise GDP and mortgage our lives away. He’s letting us know that there are a significant number of people in the world who see that we need a completely new direction. Enough people to elect him and Mujica (Uruguay) and Maduro (Venezuela) and Correa (Ecuador) and many of those in the Group of 77, to represent their voices and carry this message:
“Today, another world is indispensable because, otherwise, no world will be possible.”